Would reaching a “broader conclusion” for Iran mean a safer end to its nuclear sanctions? In principle, a broader conclusion should provide greater confidence that all of Iran’s nuclear activities are entirely peaceful, but the legacy of mistrust and deception surrounding its nuclear program amplifies the potential hazards. As Iran moves closer to fulfilling its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more dialogue on the components, utility, and risks of a broader conclusion will be essential in determining the best course of action for Iran.

Trading Sanctions for Peaceful Use 

Mark Hibbs
Hibbs is a Germany-based nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program. His areas of expertise are nuclear verification and safeguards, multilateral nuclear trade policy, international nuclear cooperation, and nonproliferation arrangements.
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Under the JCPOA, if Iran performs as required, all remaining nuclear sanctions would be lifted within a decade. Essentially, Iran must confine its nuclear activities and cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the inspectorate responsible for verifying that Iran has met its nuclear-related commitments. 

For the JCPOA to succeed, the IAEA must provide credible verification that three arrangements have been implemented: Iran’s IAEA comprehensive safeguards agreement from 1974; Iran’s additional protocol from 2003, giving the agency greater access to its nuclear program; and extra transparency measures specified by the JCPOA to restrain Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities. Since February, and most recently on September 8, 2016, the IAEA reported that it “has been verifying and monitoring the implementation by Iran of its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA.” Iran’s safeguards agreement is indefinitely in force; and according to other JCPOA parties, Iran has established measures to enhance transparency. Further, beginning on January 16, 2016, Iran began provisionally implementing its additional protocol, which is pending ratification in parliament. 

On their part, the European Union, United States, and United Nations Security Council must provide Iran substantial sanctions relief in two steps. The first occurred on January 16, 2016, and the second will occur on October 18, 2023, provided Iran fulfills its remaining commitments. However, the second group of sanctions could be terminated earlier if and when the IAEA reports that a broader conclusion has been reached—that all nuclear material in Iran has been declared and remains in peaceful activities. 

Foundations of a Broader Conclusion

The IAEA may express a broader conclusion for non-nuclear-weapon states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). These states may not develop or possess nuclear arms and are legally obligated to accept IAEA safeguards on all their nuclear material. For a broader conclusion to be possible, these states must effectively conclude and implement two central IAEA instruments: a comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA) and an additional protocol (AP).    

A CSA covers all nuclear material and activities in a state; the baseline is provided by a state’s declarations to the IAEA. The agency’s fundamental goal is to verify that a state has not diverted declared nuclear material from peaceful uses to nonpeaceful uses. What the state must declare to the IAEA and the IAEA’s level of access are detailed in the state’s safeguards agreement. As of June 2016, 173 non-nuclear-weapon states party to the treaty have CSAs in force.1  However, during the 1990s, it became evident that routine verification of states’ declarations for their CSAs was not sufficient: Iraq and North Korea had secretly violated their agreements by engaging in undeclared nuclear activities aimed to produce nuclear weapons. In recognizing the need for more information and access to detect undeclared activities, in 1997, the IAEA and its members created the AP as a vehicle to address the deficit.

Since then, most states with CSAs—currently 122 of 1732 —have voluntarily concluded an AP, providing, for example, information on uranium mining and ore processing, uranium enrichment research not involving nuclear material, and imports of specified equipment. The IAEA uses this information to build a nuclear profile for each state. The governing idea is that the more information the agency has about a state’s nuclear activities, the more likely it will detect activities that are not declared.

In parallel, beginning in the 1990s, the IAEA began reworking its internal procedures for collecting, organizing, and processing information for state profiles. The agency annually prepares a state evaluation report based on an analysis of all the compiled information. The process includes conducting an acquisition path analysis that assesses by what means and how quickly the state could hypothetically obtain nuclear material for use in a nuclear explosive device. The IAEA uses the results for setting safeguards goals and designing a safeguards approach for each state.

With greater information and access, the IAEA can express more confidence that a state with an AP has declared all its nuclear material. This judgment implies that the state’s declarations are not only correct but also complete. The judgment has therefore come to be known as the agency’s “broader conclusion” for safeguards in a state. The IAEA provided the first broader conclusion, for Australia, in 1999. 

Benefits of a Broader Conclusion

The IAEA may derive a broader conclusion after evaluating (1) a state’s declarations and the results of IAEA verification activities; (2) open-source information from trade databases, scientific journals, and commercial satellites; and (3) information provided by IAEA member states or other parties. Every year, the agency reviews its broader conclusion for the state and decides whether to reaffirm it. 

In addition to generating greater confidence about a state’s nuclear activities, the broader conclusion supports a more effective and efficient use of safeguards resources. The IAEA allows for “integrated safeguards,” under which the specific verification measures chosen for a state with a broader conclusion will be more tailored to the state’s nuclear profile, permitting the IAEA to forego certain routine measures because the agency knows more about the state’s nuclear activities as a whole. The development of integrated safeguards was expressly driven by member states with two goals in mind: to limit the extent of IAEA interference in their nuclear activities and to lower safeguards costs. For a state without a broader conclusion, the IAEA’s acquisition path analysis conservatively assumes that the state has undeclared capabilities for enrichment or reprocessing. For a state with a broader conclusion, the agency does not make this assumption, and the state’s safeguards measures may be less burdensome and more flexible.

As of June 2016, the IAEA has issued broader conclusions for sixty-seven states;3 and to date, all conclusions older than one year have been reaffirmed. In a few cases, a decision to reaffirm the broader conclusion was preceded by internal discussion in which some participants were not fully content that the broader conclusion was justified. And in 2014 and 2015—after a few member states directly intervened in the IAEA’s decisionmaking process—the IAEA renewed the broader conclusion for Ukraine, even though the agency was unable to carry out safeguards inspections at a declared nuclear installation located in Russian-occupied Crimea. This case underlines the critical importance of gaining access to all nuclear material and activities in a state with a CSA. If access is denied, the road is open for political judgments about safeguards that the IAEA is not in a position to make.

Pursuing a Broader Conclusion for Iran

During negotiations on a preliminary nuclear agreement with Iran, some Western participants considered linking the ultimate termination of nuclear sanctions to the IAEA’s provision of a broader conclusion. They conjectured that reaching it might take Iran as long as ten to fifteen years.4  However, ultimately, in November 2013, it was decided that the interim Joint Plan of Action would not include a broader conclusion among the “elements of a final step of a comprehensive solution” to the Iran nuclear crisis. 

Two years later, the broader conclusion was added to the comprehensive JCPOA to create an incentive for Iran to fully cooperate with the IAEA. However, the agreement does not require Iran to have a broader conclusion for all sanctions to be lifted and for the Security Council to formally disengage from the Iran nuclear issue in 2025. Like any other state with a CSA, Iran can comply with its safeguards obligations without a broader conclusion. Indeed, currently fifty-five states have CSAs and APs without a broader conclusion,5  and these states are in compliance with their safeguards obligations. In Iran’s case, the value of the broader conclusion lies in providing more confidence in its peaceful-use commitment, because in principle, it would mean that the IAEA has enough information to determine that Iran is not concealing any nuclear material from inspectors.

While not required by the JCPOA, the U.S. Congress is considering requiring Iran to have a broader conclusion for the ultimate termination of U.S. unilateral sanctions—as part of legislation expected this fall to extend the term of the U.S. Iran Sanctions Act for ten years beyond December 31. Some lawmakers who support the JCPOA believe that requiring the broader conclusion would facilitate Congress’s termination of sanctions. Some critics of the JCPOA instead believe that it would pressure the IAEA to make a judgment without sufficient technical justification. However, other critics favor requiring a broader conclusion, assuming that the IAEA would never give one to Iran.

The IAEA cannot give a broader conclusion without cooperation from the state subject to safeguards. Arguably, Iran’s full cooperation depends on its cost-benefit calculus and the perceived likelihood of the IAEA delivering a positive judgment. If Iran concludes that it will on balance benefit from the extra confidence expressed in its peaceful-use credentials, it might cooperate. If Iran concludes that the benefits are insignificant, or instead aims to conceal activities from the IAEA, it will not. 

How might Iran benefit from a broader conclusion? The broader conclusion would shorten the time period under the JCPOA that Iran’s nuclear program would be subject to specific restrictions. The sooner Iran gets a broader conclusion, the sooner limits will be lifted on ballistic missiles and conventional arms and the procurement of nuclear dual-use equipment, design and manufacturing of research reactors, fabrication of nuclear fuel, and installation of more gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment.

In most cases, it takes the IAEA between four and ten years to reach a broader conclusion after a state concludes its AP. How long depends on the complexity of a state’s nuclear activities, the state’s cooperation in responding to IAEA questions, and the availability of records, particularly for long-standing research and development activities. A broader conclusion for Germany was delayed for several years by an IAEA investigation looking for evidence that German scientists in the former Soviet occupation zone and the German Democratic Republic carried out work on uranium enrichment. Implementation of Turkey’s AP required a decade to unearth details on twenty-five years of nuclear fuel research performed under spotty oversight and to pursue questions about Turkish firms’ cooperation with the A. Q. Khan network in Pakistan and in the Middle East.

For Iran, legacy issues have also lengthened the IAEA’s timeline for creating a nuclear profile. However, because the agency has investigated Iran’s nuclear program since 2003, some verification officials anticipate reaching a broader conclusion in as few as five years. In reality, the length of time required will mostly depend on Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA, which needs to exceed the level Iran has demonstrated up to late 2015. 

In December 2015, the IAEA Board of Governors recorded that it would close its consideration of decade-old allegations that Iran had worked on the development of nuclear arms, regardless of internal reservations voiced by some IAEA safeguards officials.7  In 2015, parties to the JCPOA wanted to commence implementation of the agreement, with the IAEA and Iran having put the nuclear weapons–related allegations behind them. But in making a future decision about a broader conclusion for Iran, the IAEA will have to consider Iran’s nuclear weapon–making capabilities, as it has done for other states, meaning that it will have to revisit some of these allegations.

IAEA officials have reiterated that any allegations the agency pursues about a state’s nuclear activities should have a “nexus” to nuclear material, as distinct from, for example, theoretical physics calculations that serve as the basis for how a nuclear explosive device works. But the IAEA’s physical model for conducting a state evaluation includes nuclear weaponization activities that do not involve use of nuclear material. Should Iran and the IAEA aim to cooperate and resolve conflicts on areas where the agency’s safeguards authority is not expressly spelled out, the IAEA could address these issues through so-called “complementary access” afforded by Iran’s AP, especially if the IAEA and parties to the JCPOA hold all details confidential. That would also be the case for any nuclear weaponization issues that might require the agency’s additional clarification before a broader conclusion could be justified.

Should the IAEA conclude that Iran engaged in nuclear weapons research and development and likely has specific nuclear weapons–making capabilities, that finding must factor into, but not necessarily exclude, giving Iran a broader conclusion; the broader conclusion is not a judgment about a state’s capabilities but instead a determination that all nuclear activities are peaceful. 

The Risks

Giving a broader conclusion for Iran would mark the first time that the IAEA has done so where a regime has systematically and long deceived the agency about the scope and nature of its nuclear activities. Should the IAEA reach a broader conclusion without having considered all information in the case, or without having answered questions concerning activities not voluntarily disclosed by Iran or confirmed, what the IAEA may not know might follow from a deliberate effort by Iran to conceal information. Given these uncertainties, the agency should proceed with great caution, leaving no stone unturned.

With a broader conclusion, Iran would qualify for integrated safeguards, meaning that certain routine verification activities would be cut back. Based on the record of integrated safeguards elsewhere, in Iran, the IAEA might reduce the inspection load for spent power reactor fuel, but there would be little or no impact on safeguards for sensitive nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment. 

A more serious matter is the possibility that after providing a broader conclusion for Iran, the IAEA would feel pressure to reaffirm its conclusion. Agency safeguards personnel would know that nonrenewal of a broader conclusion would not necessarily mean Iran was violating the JCPOA. But the international community might react to a decision by the IAEA not to renew Iran’s broader conclusion with alarm—in the worst case, as a sign that Iran was poised to “break out” and build a nuclear bomb. Absent a generalized and firm understanding that nonrenewal of the broader conclusion does not imply that a state is violating its safeguards obligations, the IAEA might be tempted to extend a broader conclusion for political reasons that are extraneous to its technical safeguards mandate. If the agency’s actions are not consistent with its technical judgments, the credibility of the JCPOA and IAEA safeguards would be compromised. This could have damaging long-term consequences, especially given that numerous member states in recent years have urged the IAEA to base its judgments strictly on technical findings and not on political considerations or pressure from member states. 

Moving Forward

The preface to the Iran nuclear agreement says, “The full implementation of this JCPOA will ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.” A broader conclusion for Iran would logically express the fulfillment of Iran’s obligations under the JCPOA since it would mean that all of Iran’s nuclear material is in peaceful uses. If the IAEA bases the broader conclusion for Iran on sufficient information, including data provided through access that Iran is obligated to afford the agency, the IAEA’s member states could be more confident that Iran’s nuclear activities are peaceful. Iran, like other state recipients of the broader conclusion, would benefit from the application of IAEA integrated safeguards. 

However, compared to other states with a CSA and AP, expressing a broader conclusion for Iran would expose the IAEA to a greater risk, in view of the Iranian regime’s historical long-standing resistance to nuclear transparency and the possibility that a broader conclusion for Iran might be given without technical justification.   

With these risks in mind, the IAEA should not rush implementation of the AP in Iran or draw hasty safeguards conclusions to accommodate timetables or deadlines sought by member states. Furthermore, given Iran’s past track record of deception and the JCPOA’s critical role in deterring nuclear proliferation, should the IAEA give Iran a broader conclusion, the agency must thereafter continue to obtain sufficient information, especially from Iran, to maintain confidence that the broader conclusion still has merit.

Above all, and in advance of any decision to give Iran the broader conclusion, the IAEA and its member states must ensure there is a common understanding of (1) what the broader conclusion means and what it does not mean, (2) how the broader conclusion is reached, (3) on what basis a state’s broader conclusion should be renewed, and (4) how the IAEA and states should respond if it is not renewed.

To that end, the IAEA and its member states should agree on the following principles and procedures: 

  • To give or reaffirm a broader conclusion, the IAEA must have sufficient information about a state’s nuclear activities and nuclear material to make that judgment.
  • The broader conclusion should not be given or reaffirmed if the IAEA does not obtain the necessary access and information from the state.
  • In the case of inadequate information, the IAEA, the state, and, if necessary, the Board of Governors must have a process to adjudicate in the interest of providing the IAEA the information.
  • The IAEA’s decision to give or renew a broader conclusion must be information-driven and not result from external political considerations promoted by the secretariat or by member states.
  • Member states may provide information to the IAEA secretariat to assist it in implementing a state’s AP. But the decision whether to give a broader conclusion for a state is for the IAEA secretariat to make on the basis of its information, including that provided by third parties. Thereafter, the IAEA must inform member states of its decision.
  • It should be recognized that nonrenewal of a broader conclusion means a lack of sufficient information to make that judgment, and not that the state is in violation of its safeguards obligations.
  • In the case of nonrenewal, the IAEA should reassess the acquisition paths for the state and, following analysis, determine what corrective actions should be taken, including returning as appropriate to the use of standard IAEA verification criteria for a state’s safeguards approach.


International verification official, private communication, September 2016.


3 Ibid.

4 Western government negotiator, private communication, January 2013.

5 International verification official, private communication, September 2016; and author analysis.

6 International verification officials, private communications, July 2012 and April 2013.

7 International verification officials, private communications, December 2015.